Viktor Pichuhin of Nakypilo, Ukraine: How to survive and thrive reporting from the front lines | The Media Viability Podcast S02E04 transcript | Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast | DW | 31.05.2024
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Viktor Pichuhin of Nakypilo, Ukraine: How to survive and thrive reporting from the front lines | The Media Viability Podcast S02E04 transcript

The Ukrainian journalists behind Nakypilo have been reporting from the front lines in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Nakypilo’s Development Director Viktor Pichuhin talks about how the team does it.

Welcome to "Survive and Thrive," DW Akademie's dialogue with media managers on innovative and sustainable business models in a challenging global media landscape. We'll talk motivation, lessons learned, funding models, best practices, recipes for success and decisions – both good and bad.

Watch here, or read the complete transcript below

Janelle Dumalaon: Hello again, and welcome to Survive and Thrive, your media viability podcast. For this edition, we're once again talking about how media outlets deal with the daily mission of doing just that: Surviving, and also thriving.

Janelle Dumalaon GMF 2023

Podcast host and DW journalist Janelle Dumalaon

If you run a media outlet, you're no stranger to the operational and editorial challenges that come with producing quality journalism, from financing to reaching audiences and, in some cases, reporting from extreme circumstances, like war.  

Our next guest has a deep understanding of what it means to carry on with one's purpose in the face of danger, trauma, and uncertainty. I'd like to welcome Viktor Pichuhin of Nakypilo, a media organization based in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 

In a moment, we will go deep into what it means to run a wartime media operation like yours, Viktor. But first, we have a short round of introductory questions for you again.  

What is your business model in a catch phrase? 

Viktor Pichuhin: I would say run, film, produce. 

DW Akademie Medium Nakipelo

Viktor Pichuhin, Development Director of Nakypilo

Dumalaon: The next question is one we always ask. I understand that it may be a question that weighs particularly heavy though, especially at this time.   

Did you ever manage a moment where everything seemed lost? 

Pichuhin: Well, yes, I think there were such moments. But, you know, we are always planning for the worst. And that’s why these moments were not surprising for us. Our last office, for example, was completely destroyed by rockets. But we had rented another office and all our equipment was already in there. This way we were prepared for the destruction in some way.   


You prepare for the worst and eventually the moment passes. What would you need to thrive in the future? Apart, of course, from the war stopping. 

I would say that running a media outlet as a business is a big challenge, especially in Ukraine. Not even because of the war but in general. The media market in Ukraine is small and when we’re talking about advertising there’s not so many advertisers on the market. For media that has clear policy and is honest with its audience, it's really hard to gain advertisers.  


Now as we said earlier, you're based in Kharkiv and that's only several dozen kilometers away from the Russian border in eastern Ukraine. What's it like working where you are? 

Well, I would say that before the full scale invasion, we were not war reporters. We were not so much going to the front lines, but I would say that now every member of our team has become a war reporter. 

We got used to it – used to the danger and the constant lack of sleep.  

It's daily routine to you. Now you're the Development Director of Nakypilo and perhaps you can tell us what Nakypilo means and how did that name come about? 

Ten years ago, our media outlet was founded as a response to a certain information vacuum that existed in Kharkiv after the Revolution of Dignity. At that time in 2014 in Kharkiv, we had too few independent media. All big TV channels, radio stations were affiliated with politicians or businesses. So, colleagues of mine decided to fill this vacuum and they decided to start a media outlet.  

The name Nakypilo relates to a feeling that people had during the Revolution of Dignity. It means boiling over or fed up with something like corruption.  


If I understand correctly, Nakypilo is a response to the information vacuum. It is a response to, I guess, what felt like an intolerable situation that has caused a sort of boiling over in resentment. And Nakypilo is a name that reflects that frustration and that anger and that desire for things to change. 

Now, earlier you mentioned 2014, a seminal date, of course the date when you started. It was also the year, of course, that Crimea was annexed. You've been live as an outlet as long as Ukraine and Russia have been at war. 

How did your coverage change as the war expanded from the annexation of Crimea to a full scale invasion? 

We started as a media that wanted to help our city and our country to change into a more comfortable and lawful place to live. But obviously, after the new stage of war and after February 21st, 2022, we started to focus on the survival of our country and the survival of Kharkiv.  

We still are writing and making videos about human rights, about corruption, et cetera, but obviously war became our main topic. 


You came from wanting Kharkiv to improve to making sure that Kharkiv survived. That is quite a shift and I can imagine that the work that accompanies that every day can be quite heavy and quite a big responsibility to shoulder.  

Can you perhaps give us an example of work that you've done? You've mentioned some of the topics that you touch on, like corruption and the reality of living in a war, but can you name a specific example of work that you've done that you feel is particularly representative of Nakypilo and give us the story behind the story?  

The normal reaction when people hear explosions is to run away. But my colleagues, they are running towards the explosions to look at what is going on.  

So, the first thing I’d like to mention is the daily work of my colleagues who are filming Russian war crimes, Russian strikes on civilian infrastructure, civilian buildings. Just this morning, we saw Russian air strikes on civilian buildings in the center of the city. Day after day, my colleagues are filming this.

Themenpaket Kharkiv Ukraine

A view of a destroyed building on a residential area following Russian missile attack on May 14, 2024

One thing that I would say that is very important was that we were among the first journalists who reported from liberated cities in the Kharkiv region in 2022. It was really important to show the world what was really going on in these cities and how people were living there. When these cities and villages were liberated, there was no cell network, no internet, they were separated from the outer world for like nine months. 

In one city near Kharkiv, we met people who had no idea what was going on in Ukraine. I was going through the city and telling people that yes, Kharkiv is still Ukrainian; yes, we defended Kiev, it’s still under control of Ukraine. It was really important work for me to tell these people the latest news. 

Also, I would like to mention that we operate not only as a media outlet but we also run a press center to which people can come and tell their problems or about their vision of how the city should be developing or what changes they think should be made in legislation, for example. People can hold press conferences and we also invite journalists from other media so that they can write about these ideas or initiatives. 

Last year, there was a big press conference about plans to build offices in the City Park. After this press conference, people disagreed with these plans and started a protest against plans to put an office building in the park it. Ultimately the City Council built this office building in another space more suitable than the park. 


The impression I'm getting is that what has become very important to you or perhaps what has just organically happened because of the circumstances, is the direct communication with your audiences. You've talked about how on the ground you find yourself directly explaining to the people there what is happening elsewhere. You've talked about being a forum via this press center where press conferences can be held, and civil society comes and other journalists come, and that that leads to direct impact on the street. 

Given this role that you find yourself in of being the one to directly explain to audiences what is happening in Kharkiv and the surrounding areas, what is it that you think your audiences have come to expect from you in these times? 

There is a lot of propaganda, manipulation and disinformation especially in the Kharkiv region because of its closeness to the border. I’d say that Russian propaganda became quite sophisticated. They are finding the gaps in communication of city or country officials, state officials, and they are trying to fill these gaps in communication between authorities and people. They fill them with lies and misinformation and we from our side are also trying to fill this gap but with explanations of what is going on, why things are going in the way they are going. 

Here’s one example: After the heavy rocket shelling of our power plants, we still regularly have large power cuts in the region. There are schedules issued by the officials and in the schedules, you can look up at which time you will and won’t have electricity.   

Viktor Pichuhin of Nakypilo, Ukraine: How to survive and thrive reporting from the front lines | The Media Viability Podcast S02E04

Of course, these schedules aren’t always strictly followed. Like, in the schedule it says that we will not have electricity for three hours, but it's now five hours. And people get angry and wonder what’s going on. And Russia, from what we saw, is trying to fill this communication gap. They're saying that Ukraine is selling the electricity to Europe and that that’s actually why we’re without power etcetera, etcetera, yada, yada, yada. 

What we did is speak to the people who are working in the companies that supply electricity, and we wrote an explainer about why these things happen, about why power cuts aren’t sticking exactly to the schedule.  

That's what the audience is expecting us to do. 


I can understand how the service element to being a media organization becomes much more important when the job also entails explaining to people why they're experiencing what they're experiencing in a very difficult time, in extreme circumstances such as war. 

You touched on that you have to deal with propaganda. You have to deal with the operational challenges of things like regular power cuts. But what would you say your chief challenges are as a media outlet operating in wartime Ukraine? 

I would say that our main challenge is people. I'm talking about the people who are working with us. Unfortunately, we are understaffed and it’s very hard to hire good professionals now because a lot of good journalists are enlisted in the army. 

And the existing team is also a big challenge because people are getting tired. They’re exhausted. My colleagues sometimes work for 24 hours without sleep and rest because things are happening, happening, happening. Also the team, especially reporters in the field, they are traumatized because of the war and the horrible things they saw. It’s really, really hard for them to work without substitutes, and without proper rest for, I don't know, for a few weeks at least. 


When we talk about your team, we're talking about some 40 people. And you were also saying that, of course, considering the scale of the task involved, 40 people is not enough. You have 40 people who are overstretched and, as you say, stressed and traumatized and exhausted.  

How do you and your colleagues take care of yourselves? 

The most important thing, I think, is that we are taking care of each other. We see if someone is stressed, someone is traumatized, depressed, and we are trying to care for him or her. 

We do also have professional help. We work with a team of psychologists who are professionals specifically for media workers, and we have sessions with them and every member of the staff can book a meeting with a psychologist. 

Also, we are trying to find some time for, you know, board games or something like that to just reset the mind a bit. It’s impossible to be in the war and in all these processes for 24 hours and keep your sanity, and your soul. So sometimes we just play board games, Monopoly, something like that.  


Is that the team favorite? Is it Monopoly?  

Well, I would say it was, but people are not playing with me anymore because I'm really, really good at it. 


DW Akademie | MediaFit Training

Viktor Pichuhin and a colleague from Nakypilo at a DW Akademie "MediaFit" summit in Poland

Well, you not only develop skills as a war reporter, you're also a very skilled Monopoly board player that nobody wants to play with.  

We talked about the emotional stress that you and your team face in your coverage. But of course, there is also the very real possibility and, in some cases, reality of physical harm coming to you and your teammates. Do you have protocols to keep safe

Yes, we do have such protocols and well, unfortunately in January a colleague of mine was injured by a piece of a rocket that fell down nearby her office. She was injured quite badly. But she is highly trained in First Aid, and she managed to apply a bandage to her wound and evacuate to the nearest shelter. As written down in our protocols, she informed our editor-in-chief and me about her wound. And I was able to be there in, like, ten minutes, find her and put her in an ambulance.  

So yeah, we have a lot of security protocols stemming from the trainings. Every team member knows the basics of First Aid. They know how to stop bleeding. And everyone is obliged to have his or her First Aid kit with them whenever they go – regardless of whether it’s work or personal time. When they go out into dangerous environments, like places of drone shelling or rocket shelling or just near the frontlines, they're obliged to wear bulletproof vests and helmets. 

Also, obviously, our editor-in-chief always knows where each team member is, and what they are working on.  

I’d say that these security protocols actually saved my life when, three or four weeks ago, I was filming the casualties after a drone strike in the presidential building in Kharkiv and Russians launched another attack on the site and, because of my training, I managed to not be injured and to get out. That’s why I’m able to speak to you today. 


I'm also very glad that you're OK and you're able to speak to us today.  

I mean, this is the thing with security protocols, right? You have them as a precaution and hope they will keep you safe. But I am sorry to hear that you have had to also employ them because they became necessary and you have had colleagues that have gotten hurt. And of course, I wish you and all of your colleagues every safety. 

Of course, Nakypilo is not alone as a media organization in Ukraine and I was wondering since the war started, how has the full-fledged invasion impacted the regional media landscape in Ukraine? 

Being a small, independent, regional media and has become harder, obviously, because the advertising market died after the full scale invasion. It is very slowly starting to be born again. Most of the regional media I know are dependant on grants, because there aren’t many other sources of income, unfortunately. 

Now also, as I said, all the media in the territories near the border with Russia or near frontlines involuntarily became war reporters – the focus of reporting has changed. And other media, too, share our problems with staff: the lack of people, it's quite similar in other media.  

But I think that without the small regional media, life would be much more difficult and way worse, especially for the local residents. Big TV channels and big radio stations don’t know much about the context of what's going on in the cities and small villages. Only the small regional media can provide this level of information, speak to these people in the regions and small villages and make their voices heard.


You spoke about how the advertising market collapsed and it's only starting to come back to life again. At Nakypilo, you have financed your operation with a mixture of grants, because - as we keep saying throughout this episode - it is a very special time to be a media outlet in Ukraine.   

What do you think it means to be viable in the face of these circumstances? 

I’d say the first thing is to preserve your team in every way: physically, psychologically, in the way of paying proper salaries so they can live as normally as possible without having to think about other work. This is the most important key to viability.  

The next, I think, is trying to look for other sources of income. This is despite having said that the advertising market is almost dead and trying to rise again. Donors cannot support you forever, obviously. That’s why we are developing our production branch and our advertising branch. That's why we are now working on some community support and some donations from our audience. That's why we are even selling merchandise, T-shirts and other things, to have different sources of income.  

All this helps with viability and if we for some reason don't get some grant support, I don’t know if we’d survive but I know that we would be better off than other media that only depend on grants.  

And the third tool towards viability is open communication with our audience. We're trying to not talk about these people as an audience, about abstract numbers in Google Analytics or something like that. But we are trying to build a community around our media and around the values we have. And it works. 

I think it was five years ago that we had a problem with a gap in grant support, it was three months without any grant support. We talked to our team, explained the situation and asked, like, “Sorry guys. Can you live for a while while we are trying to find some small funding for this?” And our team understood, but we also needed to pay the rent for our office, so we wrote to our community and they actually donated the money we needed for three months. It took less than a week.   

That’s the community we’re building: We’re helping these people with explaining things, and the community helps us if we face some challenges.  


I wanted to talk about community and working with the environment around you. Nakypilo, of course, collaborates very closely with Kharkiv’s civil society. 

What is that collaboration and what does it look like? 

Our motto is that we are the voice of Ukrainian Kharkiv. We’re actively trying to highlight the people, groups of people and individual activists who are trying to change something and impact the city. Sometimes it starts in our press centre when some activists come to us with a topic like, for example, an ecological problem with the river. In that case, we organize a press conference, invite journalists and media start talking about this topic sometimes. 

For example, eight years ago, there was a huge problem in not only Kharkiv, but all of Ukraine, in that the relatives of someone in intensive care weren’t allowed to visit due to legislative restrictions. Activists approached us about this issue and we ended up filming five stories: Three with people whose relatives were in intensive care and died there without their relatives being allowed to visit and say goodbye. And two stories from the other side, from the doctor's side, where the doctors explained why actually it's possible to let people visit even in intensive care.  

When we published these videos, people started to share their stories about their experiences and I would say that this coverage partly influenced that the law was changed a few months later. 

And then sometimes we are the ones approaching activists asking for help. "Here’s a problem. Can you do something about it?"


I think this all also kind of dovetails with what you were saying about making sure that your audience isn't just, you know, like numbers on a page as such, but like real people that you are trying to serve. 

I was just wondering, however, about how everyone is living through this same difficult reality. Do you see news fatigue in your audience? Do people share the exhaustion that you have about the ongoing war and how do you address that? 

Well, if we are talking about news fatigue, it depends on which news you are talking about. Obviously, people are getting tired of breaking news because if it's breaking news all day long, it just becomes regular news.  

But yeah, we are trying to communicate with our audience in slightly different ways. We’re not trying to shock them. We are not trying to manipulate their attention to get more views. We are trying to communicate with them in a more healthy way because we need sane readers and listeners. We’re trying to calm them more. 

I would say that our news audience don't get so much news fatigue. Obviously people are tired because it's the third year already of the full scale war going on in our country, but I think people are angry even despite all the exhaustion and all the tiredness. People are angry and they are doing everything to protect their city and their country.  


I'm interested in what you mean when you say you try to keep them calm. I guess I can imagine that that means you try not to sensationalize. Then you try to be respectful. You try to keep voyeuristic elements, perhaps, to a minimum. But what is it that you mean when you say you want a sane readership and to achieve that, you have to try and keep them calm?  

We're not trying to shock them. We have a strict policy about photographs and visual images of dead people and we are not showing injured people unless they give us the direct and clear permission to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of Ukrainian media start their news with sensation: "You won’t believe what happened. Something really scary happened."

We don't do this to our audience. We are trying very broad, simple communication. Our goal is that our listeners and viewers, after consuming our news, don’t have any open questions about the situation. 

We’re trying to report from all angles, trying to explain everything, respond to every possible question, keeping the reader in mind. We’re also working with a psychologist who, on a weekly basis, writes for us and records a podcast about how to keep yourself safe, how to care about your mental health, etc. 

Also, we are trying to find some beautiful scenes, capture them and publish them with our daily weather forecast. That can be a photo of a cat, dog, or just nature, and people love these pictures. They really wait for them to publish. So, even during the horrible war, we're trying to find something for our readers to smile at and smile kindly, I would say. 


We talked a lot in the beginning about the meaning of Nakypilo and how it means boiling over, frustration at the status quo and resentment. But in the course of our conversation, like I've come to see a lot of hope and determination and the desire to provide relief in your media outlet. And that's caused me to wonder: What is your vision for  Nakypilo in a post-war Ukraine? 

We would like to be a media that helps Ukraine heal, that helps our country heal in a physical way, in the way of rebuilding. And also to heal the minds of our audience and even the veterans who will be even more traumatized than civilians. We need to change our country and city so it would be a good place for them to live. And I think we will be aiming at helping the country and the city and people to heal and to live in a comfortablly good place. 


Now our time with you, Viktor, is coming to a close. But before we let you go, we wanted to get from you the three best practice tips that you can share with us that you've learned in your time as the Development Director of Nakypilo. 

The first one is to be honest – with your staff, with the audience you are working for, and with your partners in business. Honesty and openness always lead to quite good results. 

The second one is to plan for the worst, be the pessimist but not a doom-and-gloom pessimist. Think about the worst case scenario, do something about it and prepare for it. And you will be ready for anything. It worked for us before the 24th of February 2022, because we were quite well- prepared for the full scale invasion and it's still working for us because we have backup plans for everything. 

The third one is to diversify. Not only operate in the field you are currently in but try and gain new fields and new ways of doing something interesting. We started as an online media and printed newspaper and now we also have a radio station both online and on FM. We have a big educational center where every year a lot of journalists from all over Ukraine are studying. And also we have the press center that is kind of a community center where we also started to offer master classes. And we are trying to, like, diversify our activities more and more and more. 


So, the first best practice tip is to be honest with staff and your audience, and that will yield the best outcomes. Plan for the worst scenario, always have backup plans. And the third is to diversify your fields of operation.   

We have to leave it there. So, I would like to thank you Viktor Pichuhin of Nakypilo and thank you dear listeners.  


This transcript of "Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast" has been lightly edited for clarity. 

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This podcast is produced by DW Akademie and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Nakypilo has participated in DW Akademie's EU-funded project "MediaFit"


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